U.S. Processing Delays Leave Thousands of Iraqi Refugees in Limbo

Washington, DC – This holiday season, thousands of Iraqi refugees – including Iraqi Christians and other religious and sexual minorities, as well as U.S.affilitated Iraqis – are living in limbo in the Middle East region, struggling to survive outside of Iraq with limited ability to exercise their basic rights, obtain formal employment or access services such as education and heath care. As violence and instability persist in Iraq, resettlement to other countries – including the United States – remains the only effective path for many of these refugees, including those who have faced persecution in Iraq because of their work with the United States, to find safety, dignity and a new home for their families. While the United States has stepped up its response to Iraqi displacement over the last few years, according to a new Human Rights First report issued today, serious reforms are needed in the U.S. resettlement program to remove unnecessary processing delays which now leave many Iraqis refugees and U.S.-affiliated Iraqis vulnerable and stranded in difficult and sometimes dangerous situations. “Lengthy delays in U.S. processing leave Iraqis slated for U.S. resettlement languishing for months – even years – in countries where they have limited opportunities to support their families and some – particularly those within Iraq – face life-threatening circumstances,” said Human Rights First’s Jesse Bernstein, lead author of the new report, Living in Limbo: Iraqi Refugees and U.S. Resettlement. “These persisting processing delays, including delays in processing background clearances, continue to undermine the effectiveness of the programs created by Congress – in bi-partisan legislation – to ensure that U.S.-affiliated Iraqis are brought to safety in a timely manner. Despite the ongoing U.S. troop drawdown and its shift to a civilian-led operation in Iraq, Iraqis continue to face persecution and violence, circumstances that cause them to flee to different regions of Iraq or to seek refuge in countries such as Syria, Jordan, and Turkey. This serious situation requires continued high level engagement from the United States and international community.  In 2010 alone, the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) registered just over 31,000 Iraqi refugees. In October of this year, there were 3,000 new registrations alone in Syria and Jordan. Over 195,000 Iraqi refugees are registered with UNHCR in the region, although additional refugees are not registered. In its interviews with Iraqis in the region, including religious minorities such as Iraqi Christians and U.S.-affiliated Iraqis, not one had hopes of returning to Iraq, and some experienced direct violence while waiting to be resettled to the United States. In one case, the son of an Iraqi translator who worked for the United States military waited 21 months in Baghdad for his resettlement approval. During his wait, he was shot due to his father’s U.S. affiliation and he received additional threats while waiting for his U.S. security check process to be completed. He finally arrived in the United States in November 2010. In another example, a child fell ill and died while awaiting security processing and his young siblings and mother were jailed by Turkish authorities because they had overstayed their visas. In recent years, the United States has played a leadership role in providing humanitarian assistance to Iraqi refugees and displaced persons. It has also contributed significantly to UNHCR’s Iraqi protection operations. At the same time, the Departments of State and Homeland Security continue to struggle to overcome persistent  problems that undermine the timeliness of U.S. resettlement efforts,  including delays  in  the processing of inter-agency security clearances.  In fact, former Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker complained about the “bottlenecks” in security clearance processing over three years ago. Human Rights First’s report, based on independent research and interviews with Iraqi refugees as well as government officials and UN staff, offers a series of reforms to address  the concerns raised in the report. Among the organization’s key reform recommendations are the following:

  • Ensure timely and effective processing of resettlement and visa applications for Iraqi refugees, U.S.-affiliated Iraqis and other refugees – specifically:
  • Reduce unnecessary delays in the security clearance process. The National Security Council should, together with the Departments of State, Justice, Homeland Security and intelligence agencies, improve the inter-agency security clearance procedure to enable security checks for refugees and U.S.-affiliated Iraqis to be completed accurately and without unnecessary delays within a set time period;
  • Develop and implement an emergency resettlement procedure for refugees facing imminent danger. The Department of State should continue to work with other relevant federal agencies to develop and implement a formal and transparent resettlement procedure for refugees who face emergency or urgent circumstances;


  • Remove other impediments which continue to delay the applications of U.S.-affiliated Iraqis. The Department of State, working with other agencies, should – in addition to addressing delays in security processing – continue to take other steps to eliminate case backlogs and address inefficiencies in the current SIV visa processing procedures;
  • Provide information necessary for refugees to submit meaningful Requests for Reconsideration. The Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services should implement reforms to improve the fairness and effectiveness of the resettlement process, including by revising the current Notice of Ineligibility for Resettlement to provide case-specific  factual and legal reasons for denial.

“By addressing the persistent delays in processing, the Obama administration will strengthen the effectiveness of the U.S. resettlement program and recommit itself to the protection of refugees,” Bernstein concluded


Published on December 15, 2010


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